Not quite three months after the somewhat hurried resignation of its last executive director, the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce has a new leader in Aimee Stafford, a veteran in leadership of chambers and non-profits, especially in Kentucky, but with long-established established ties in Florida and Ormond Beach, where she’s lived since May.
Energetic, bubbling with ideas and a bright outlook–her personality might draw parallels with that of Matt Morton, the Palm Coast city manager since last spring–Stafford reported to work at the chamber on Airport road this morning at 8, and has been preparing for the holiday party scheduled for this evening. She will oversee a staff of four, down from more than a dozen just a decade ago, a reflection of the chamber’s struggles and Stafford’s challenges ahead.
Stafford’s ambitions are not small. At the end of her interview with the selection committee, which was made up of Palm Coast Attorney Michael Chiumento III, Bunnell developer and Flagler Beach resident Mark Langello, and Palm Coast Observer Publisher John Walsh, Walsh recalled Stafford said she wanted to make Flagler’s chamber the top chamber in Florida.
“I meant the chamber of the year nationally,” Stafford said, “for a chamber of its size, so we can start with Florida for sure.”
That doesn’t appear to be the musing of an overly ambitious Icarus: She spent 17 years at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, 14 of them as senior vice president for administration. In 2017, the 60-member Kentucky chamber (advocating for 68,000 employers) was the nation’s State Chamber of the Year, so named by the Council of State Chambers, and beating out Pennsylvania and Nebraska. She was also named a “Top 40 Under 40” by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives,
“I think that the addition of Aimee Stafford at the Flagler Chamber is part of the community reset,” Walsh said, “the change in administration of the county, the change in management of the city, the direction of our community. I think this was an important part to continue that momentum of progressive change. Her resume and experience in the chamber industry is the first chamber professional in Flagler County for many, many years, and the experience that she brings is just very exciting.”
Her predecessor, Jorge Gutierrez, was drawn from the private sector, his predecessor, Rebecca DeLorenzo, had developed her chamber experience at the chamber itself, Walsh said, and her predecessor, Doug Baxter, had been drawn from the private sector. “To have a chamber executive with 16 years’ experience at the state level interacting with chambers throughout the state to identify best chamber practices, I think we are in a great position to go forward,” Walsh said.
The Flagler chamber is desperate to go forward, with precarious finances, an eroding membership (it’s about 675 businesses) and diminished relevance in the community. Stafford sees numerous opportunities to restore the chamber’s relevance, whether through the chamber’s non-profit foundation arm, through policy advocacy, through new festivals, and by focusing on the chamber’s own structure and internal procedures. Stafford sees Flagler for its diversity: Palm Coast is not Flagler Beach, and Flagler Beach isn’t Bunnell,but she sees building cohesion between the disparate segments of the county as one of her challenges. “It’s almost like sitting at Thanksgiving with everybody facing outward,” she says. Stafford wants the participants to be at the table, facing each other.
She’s not a stranger to Florida or the area. She has family in Vero Beach. She moved to Ormond Beach in May with her husband, who had some health issues of his own and who wanted to be closer to his parents, who live in Ormond. His family had had a motorcycle dealership locally as well. “We were like, let’s put our house up for sale and see what happens, well, it sold in four days,” Stafford says. So they moved. She became the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Florida in Orlando, but soon realized that the commute on I-4 was a bit nightmarish., keeping her from home until late at night (she and her husband have a 13-year-old son). She’s always known fellow-chamber executives. She was speaking with Nancy Keefer, the president of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, who alerted her to the opening in Flagler.
She applied. She was a finalist, and got the job “hands down,” in Chiumento’s words.
“I think in the last 10 or so years, the way the business of running a chamber has changed tremendously just in general,” said Chiumento, who like Walsh is involved in the chambers in Volusia as well. “People have to be a chamber professional, they have to understand how chambers work, how to make revenue, compliance. She clearly is a chamber professional.”
Stafford has been given objectives: “Get the chamber in a position that has a financial trajectory toward stability,” Chiumento said, “she will be the face of the business community, and working coordinately with our local governments, obviously. And from there, I’m looking for her to tell us what she needs to do.”
The chamber has been exploring deeper, potentially financial, links with local governments, though so far governments have been reluctant to extend anything that might be seen as a subsidy as opposed to the sort of partnership the county has with the chamber at its annual Creekside Festival at Princess Place. But Walsh said there are further possibilities. “In the Ormond Beach chamber,” he said, “there is a service agreement between the city of Ormond Beach and the Ormond Beach Chamber of Commerce, where the chamber provides the staffing, the facility, to be the welcome center for the city of Ormond Beach. It’s a contracted service provided to the city. I think there’s opportunity throughout our community that could resemble that.”
A release issued Wednesday outlines Stafford’s experience: at the Kentucky chamber she was responsible for the daily operations of a $10 million organization with a staff of 40 and a board of more than 60 individuals. She was chief of staff to the chief executive officer, overseeing the chamber’s non-profit arms and the revenue division. She was also responsible for all strategic plans and annual business plans and was the chamber’s human resources manager. She managed a $2 million capital campaign and the construction project for the Kentucky Chamber’s renovation.
This time, there’s no term limit to the new chamber leader, as had been the case with Gutierrez, who’d wanted to limit his tenure to a few years. “She is embracing the career opportunity, I think it’s a long-term play,” Walsh said.